Film canons

Recently Girish posted his concerns that film studies as a discipline resists explicit discussions of the film canon.
Now, no one would deny that implicit — or de facto — canons exist in film studies. Despite the great move in postmodern thinking that flattened all cultural objects to the same level, the reality is that certain films find greater favor than others for the purposes of teaching or scholarship. Why then doesn’t the discipline call attention to this fact by making it public and explicit — in a gesture of institutional self-examination — by means of a poll? Is it because of an underlying (and embarrassing) suspicion that the idea of a canon is too often associated with aesthetic preferences?
I think there are two key reasons for film studies to get actively involved in the canon formation effort. First, it would initiate public conversation by bringing two film cultures — journalistic and academic — into dialogue, conflict and exchange. Second, in today’s Internet and social media environment, such an effort — sponsored, for example, by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) — would receive widespread publicity, thus pulling a large number of voices into a visible and international debate. Both these reasons can only be healthy for the film community.
There are some theoretical and methodogical reasons that some scholars like me resist explicit canon-propagating activity (I've written on these before), but I will concede that most scholars have some operative film canon. For now, I have a couple of replies. First, I'm not sure that the sotto voce versions of the canon that film academics hold is all that different from the cinephile canon. We watch and teach Criterion films, too, and we follow the key film festival auteurs like Denis and Weerasethakul. To the extent that we're engaged in film culture beyond our specialization (remember, I watch a lot of Hollywood films from the 1940s), we're likely to be followers of film critical practice, not leaders in it. There are some notable exceptions.

Second, there is a record of implicit value in the field: the sum of publications. It's not a perfect match to the films that scholars rate as the best masterpieces, but published scholarship almost by definition records an academic canon - the films that scholars think are worthy as objects of study, for whatever reason.

Third, while generally a fan of methodological self-reflexivity, I'm not convinced that naming canonical favorites will shed light on the institution of film studies or bring theoretical clarity. I don't think it's a bad thing, mind you, I'm just not sure it will bring much benefit to the field.

That said, I'll take up the challenge and give my personal best-of list. I couldn't narrow it to 10 films!

Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda)
Crimson Kimono (Fuller)
Daisy Kenyon (Preminger)
Eclipse (Antonioni)
Il Posto (Olmi)
In the Year of the Pig (de Antonio)
La Cienaga (Martel)
Ménilmontant (Kirsanoff)
Muriel (Resnais)
Notorious (Hitchcock)
Parallax View (Pakula)
Story of Late Chrysanthemum (Mizoguchi)
Twice a Man (Markopoulos)
Underworld (von Sternberg)
Written on the Wind (Sirk)

Of these, all are pretty much standard canon fare, with the possible exception of The Parallax View and Daisy Kenyon  - incidentally, the are the only ones on my list that I've written about. The rest I teach with some regularity in my classes, except for Twice a Man, which is impossible to get a hold of.


Daniel Kremer said…
I can get you TWICE A MAN.

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